Overall, October has been a surprisingly good month full of unexpected things. It began with a trip to England to visit family. As part of this there was a day trip to the historic mill at Saltaire built by (surprise) Sir Titus Salt. He also built houses for his workers so that they would have access to clean air and light, constructed parks and commissioned public sculpture to adorn the streets (image above left). No longer functioning as a textile factory, Saltaire houses a huge collection of work by David Hockney . It was an unexpected surprise to see his series The Arrival of Spring, and to walk round the streets of Saltaire, a model village and example of what good town planning can look like even today. Another surprise, towards the end of the month came in the form of an award from the Political Studies Association of Ireland. I was thrilled to receive the Basil Chubb prize for the best PhD thesis (produced in an Irish University) in any field of politics. I was presented with the prize by the President of PSAI Jennifer Kavanagh at Belfast City Hall (image above right) and it was a great way to end the 'PhD years'! I am conscious, however, that my life takes place parallel to bigger, global events and this October has not been stellar in that regard. I think of all of those just now who do not have access to clean air or light, who may not live to see the next Spring and whose towns and villages - wherever they are - are under bombardment. I hope that other better things happen for them.
This September, my triptych For those who are no-one's exhalation, left the studio for a long stay at the Troubles and Beyond Gallery at the Ulster Museum, part of National Museums of Northern Ireland. It now sits alongside other artworks and ephemera that reflect the history of Northern Ireland from the 1960s to the present day and the exhibition includes objects from the thirty year conflict known as the Troubles. I am delighted that my efforts to think about how the Troubles might be commemorated will be seen by a much wider audience including local people and visitors. It is a deeply reflective piece which I have written about previously on this blog . Put briefly, it is an artistic materialisation of breathing as an act of remembering and it attempts to draw attention to the political atmospheres in which we live and breathe. By extension, this includes pathogens and pollution as well as politics. More information on the Troubles and Beyond Gallery can be found on the website of the Ulster Museum - I have included the link here www.ulstermuseum.org/whats-on/troubles-and-beyond
I hope as summer turns to autumn that some of you might find your way to the gallery and take your own time to reflect and remember what trouble means to you. Take a breath and let go of the memories.
How do we mark the passing of time? How many of us notice the leaves changing colour from green to orange and know that summer is moving towards autumn? How many of us can tell the time by the position of the sun in the sky? How can we measure minutes on a sundial ? Recently I have been thinking of time and memorials; what stands the test of time and what does not. On the right, is an image of a reconstructed sun-dial at Nendrum Monastery which overlooks a part of Strangford Lough. On the right, is a working image of a wreath I am making to commemorate the loss of forest floors. The sundial is made from stone and it endured for centuries despite its history of destruction, burial and subsequent excavation. The wreath is made from bio-plastic, with deliberate destruction and reconstruction built into the design concept. It took a long time to make but how long will it take to destroy? How will each making and un-making reveal its history? Our times are commodified. We clock-in and clock-out. We try to buy a little time 'for ourselves'. We sell our time for an hourly rate - if we are lucky this gives us enough to live on. There is not enough time to appreciate what we stand on or what lies beneath. If you could pause time, or reverse the forward trajectory of Time's arrow, what would you do? How would you spend your time?
This July was a mix of work and leisure at home and abroad - even on holiday one never stops looking but more of that later. I was delighted to be selected for two exhibitions in the States and wished that I had been able to attend both openings. The first was as CIACLA, otherwise known as the Irish Arts Center in L.A. as part of Irish Contemporaries II, and the second was at the Evanstan Art Center in Chicago, Illinois as part of Partition in the Modern World, curated by Pritika Chowdhry. In an ideal world, I could have fulfilled a long held wish to drive from the East Coast to the West in the U.S but it was not to be! More achievable was a mini tour of Frankfurt and Strasbourg, both closer to home. I took a day trip to Wurzburg to revisit some old haunts and was very taken by the new Holocaust Deportation Memorial outside the main train station (image on right). These pieces of luggage made in stone, wood and concrete were not the work of a single artist but rather the results of collaborative engagements with local residents and schools. By contrast, the Monument aux Morts in Strasbourg (centre) depicted all the familiar tropes of a historical monument - muscular male forms being borne aloft by the benign and tender ministrations of a female. I wonder which piece I will remember best? The left image shows some disgarded statues, stored under the Pont Couvert in Strasbourg. These figurines seem to be a mix of pagan and Christian symbolism and they may have come from the main Cathedral. Whatever their origins, or original intent, they seemed to me to more akin to an art installation given their deliberate conversational placement. The placement of the deportation memorial in Wurzburg was a sober reminder in the age of mass tourism that not everyone had a choice in their final destination.
Despite my love of monochromatic minimalism, this week saw me in London enjoying a few busy, crowded and high-key exhibitions. Ai Weiwei was at the Design Museum with his exhibition Making Sense. This induced hand-axe envy but also a reflection on the mass production of objects from canon balls to plastic bricks. Why are the former so aesthetically pleasing and latter less so, when both do damage to the physical world? At the National Gallery, I enjoyed Nalini Malani's immersive looped video installations 'Reality is Different'. Here, Malini critiqued well known historical works from the National Gallery Collection to highlight the marginalised in society. I also saw an exhibition on St. Francis of Assisi whose spiritual radicalism and love of nature inspired artists from the 13th century to the 21st. Are artists natural activists? Should we be? I wonder what comes first - the desire to make something which has aesthetic appeal or the need to address a societal wrong and how does one influence the other, if at all? If the message is the only meaning in the work then there is little for the viewer to respond to. Perhaps I enjoyed the above exhibitions so much because the messaging was subtle yet subversive. They appealed to the senses sensually without preaching. I wonder would St Francis have approved?
April 2023 marked the 25th anniversary of the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement. Queen's University Belfast was host to a series of events involving so many politicans, Prime Ministers, former Presidents of the USA and various ambassadors, dignitaries, academics and the lucky few who were able to get tickets. Over at QSS, we marked the occasion in our own way by showing a reconfigured version of The im/material monument; an exhibition which ironically, I had shown at Queen's University Naughton Gallery the year before. What has changed in a year? In twenty-five years? For me, personally and professionally, there have been so many changes, good and bad. What has changed for you?
March can wrong foot us. One day we are sitting outside in the sun watching the first buds and flowers emerge and the next, we are tentatively picking our way through ice and snow. We are between seasons. In Northern Ireland we can get all of them in one day. This March, I have been sowing creative seeds and hoping that some of them, if not all, will take root despite or indeed because of the environment in which they have been planted. Just as it is certain that the tide will come in and go out again, so it is true that we are always between things. Failure or success, rejection or acceptance, this and that. I have realised that rather than jumping between these polarities, exampled perhaps in the highs and lows of artistic practice, it is possible to exist in the liminal space of neither/nor. Neither land nor sea, salt spray or sand but something that defines its own edges and finds its own way of being true to its nature.
The year started as it ended - preoccupied with time. Using the circular form of the traditional clock face, I began experimenting with non-numerical ways of marking the time, in splashes and drips and floods of pigment. From the start of the series to the end, these studies progress from faint mark making to blocked out circles where no marks can be seen. Studying these, I reflected on how they were analagous to how we humans have left our mark on the earth - from barely a trace to virtual obliteration of anything that is sensitive to our presence. Reading around this led me to consider the Doomsday Clock where, in 2023, those involved in its calibration have calculated that we are now 90 seconds to midnight. In other words, the closest we have come (since 1947 at least) to wiping ourselves out by war, climate change, biological threats and disruptive technology. On this cheerful note (!) one can be optimistic and think that things can only get better but realistically, the best we can do is arrest time, or roll it back. In 1991, the Doomsday Clock was the furthest it has been from midnight at seventeen minutes, marking the end of the Cold War. As the days become perceptibly brighter and therefore longer, I hope we all have enough time to do the things we need and want to do and to make our mark lightly.
They say the proof is in the pudding and in December we can all eat too many of those! Here the proof, if any is needed, comes in the form of me - all robed up and striding across the stage of the Whitla Hall in Queen's mid-December on what was one of the coldest days of the year. Graduation is a surreal affair. Although family and friends can be present, often one does not graduate with one's peers and colleagues, as we all finish our studies at different times. I was delighted, therefore, that my friend and colleague Deirdre McBride was able to join me for a quick photo at the site of one of our common points of interest - where else but a WW1 memorial! I hope to reciprocate in June when (Dr) Deirdre graduates and hope that the weather is at least above zero. At first, December seemed a strange time for graduation but the more thought I gave to it, the more I realised how fitting it was, for me at least. A week after these photographs were taken, we had the Winter Solstice, then Christmas and New Year. It is a time of year which marks the end of things and signals the start of new beginnings and possibilities. For many, including me, 2022 was a year of highs and lows, of celebration and mourning and of saying goodbye to old friends. These photos mark not just the end of the PhD journey but a period of time in life which, of course, includes so many other things. So here's to 2023, drawing lines - figuratively and literally - and moving forward. Now that the shortest day is behind us, we can look forward to more light.
The Venice Bienalle can be overwhelming - a smorgesbord of sights, sounds and smells. I guess it has to 'go big' to be able to compete with the reality of Venice itself. At the Bienalle there are always new things to see and new artists to discover whereas wondering around Venice is like visiting an old but labyrinthian friend! Together, the combination of old and new, complemented by dark chocolate gelatos, aperol spritz and late autumn sunshine made for a rejuvenation of body and soul. Standouts for me were the late (great) Paula Rego, Anselm Keifer at the Ducal Palace and Rebecca Horn (tucked away in the main pavilion) as well as a peripheral show by Marlene Dumas at the Palazzo Grassi. There is too much to list but away from the still crowded Bienalle there is splendour to be found by wondering into old churches and abandoned buildings far away from the Giardini or Arsenale sites. Mosquitos aside, it was well worth the trip!
This is where you will find news about exhibitions, projects, events, other artists, travels, experimental work and sometimes things that I just enjoyed seeing! I hope you enjoy them too!